In February 1961, months after John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been elected president of the US, the American public was set abuzz with excitement by an all-new development in the political arena: The drastic restoration of the White House, which transformed it into a welcoming, laid-back environment where cocktails were served and musicians performed on a portable stage. The undisputed star attraction of the renovated space was its opulent antique furniture, which had been carefully selected and curated by a Fine Arts Committee formed for the occasion. Gilded plush chairs filled the room, while lavish chandeliers hung from the ceiling and antique wallpaper panels depicting the country’s landscape and scenes from the American Revolutionary War covered the walls.
The revamp was so well-received it prompted people to donate their family heirlooms and many lauded then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for her efforts in spearheading the project. But lesser known was her mentor Jayne Wrightsman, whose keen eye for art and connections with famed designers such as Stéphane Boudin were instrumental to the project’s success.
A slim, attractive brunette, Wrightsman was married to oil tycoon Charles Wrightsman (she often went by his last name) and sat on the Fine Arts Committee, where she played a key role in liaising with designer Dorothy Mae “Sister” Parish on the renovations. She also roped in Boudin, who had once designed interiors for the royal families of Iran and Belgium, as an additional decorator.
Preferring to stay out of the limelight, Wrightsman was modest about her involvement in the high-profile endeavour and let Onassis be the face of the project. She and her husband had befriended the Kennedys in the early 1960s, when the Kennedys were frequent visitors to their Palm Beach home. According to a 2003 Vanity Fair interview with Letitia Baldrige, Onassis’ former social secretary, the two women weren’t exactly “warm, cosy friends” but got along very well.
Ascent to the top
Despite her glitzy association with that era’s political power couple and a rolodex of influential friends the likes of diplomat Henry Kissinger, philanthropist Brooke Astor and the late fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, Wrightsman’s personal life remained a mystery to everyone she knew. She was fiercely private about her past and rarely gave interviews to the media. Born Jane Kirkman Larkin on 21 October 1919 in Flint, Michigan, she grew up with three other siblings. Not much is known about her parents, but according to a Vanity Fair report, town records reveal that her father, Frederick Larkin, was president of a construction company. In the 1930s, Wrightsman, her mother and siblings relocated to Los Angeles. Her mother became an alcoholic and spent most of her time at nightclubs.
Left to fend for herself, Wrightsman began working right after she graduated from high school and tried her hand at various trades, ranging from retail to modelling and acting. Independent, beautiful and effortlessly stylish, it wasn’t long before she caught the eye of the Hollywood “in crowd” — including playboys, aspiring film producers and rising stars such as Cary Grant and George Randolph Scott — and became part of their clique. In 1944, she met and married her husband, a wealthy oil executive and tournament polo player who had recently divorced his first wife.
Their marriage marked a turning point for Wrightsman, as her husband set his eyes on a new goal: Getting them both inducted into the inner sanctum of high society. He hired teachers and curators to educate her on art, the French language and any other skills he found crucial to fitting in with the elite. A quick learner, Wrightsman mastered French and discovered her knack for interior decorating. She befriended Boudin in the early 1950s and, under his guidance, developed her flair for the craft.
Over the next years, the couple bought homes in Florida’s Palm Beach and New York, and began amassing an impressive collection that included French 18th-century furniture and paintings by renowned artists Johannes Vermeer, Peter Paul Rubens and Jacques-Louis David. That, along with their friendship with the Kennedys, propelled them into the upper echelon of the jet-set. In the late 1970s, the Wrightsmans donated several works and furniture to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, cementing their reputations as serious collectors. Today, these items can be found at the museum’s Wrightsman Galleries for French Decorative Arts.
Other than her astute choices in art collecting, there was something else that set Wrightsman apart from others in her social circle: Her impeccable sartorial sense. She favoured simple and chic silhouettes that provided a clean backdrop to her glittering jewellery. It was only in a 1966 shoot by celebrated photographer Cecil Beaton that she wore something more over-the-top: A Balenciaga pink ostrich-plume silk dress covered in layers of fringe. The gown would have overwhelmed her, if not for her dainty diamond earrings that drew attention to her classic beauty. In 1965, Vanity Fair acknowledged her immaculate style by including her in its International Best Dressed List, an annual ranking of the world’s top stylemeisters.
Wrightsman’s desire for elusiveness and privacy extended to her spectacular jewellery collection, which remained under the radar until 2012, when some 63 pieces were put up for auction at Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels from the Collection of Mrs Charles Wrightsman sale in New York. The jewels performed well, achieving US$15,541,188 — much higher than the initial estimate of $9 million — and an impressive 95.2 per cent of the items was sold. Her taste was eclectic, ranging from elegant and classic jewellery covered with diamonds, to flamboyant creations bedecked with precious stones such as emeralds and coral. Among her go-to jewellers were Cartier, Bulgari, Verdura and JAR.
Diamonds and Pearls
Ever the classy fashionista, Wrightsman adored diamonds and pearls, especially on brooches. During a 1953 ball organised by gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell, she wowed in a white lace strapless gown accented by an opulent diamond-studded pin. An eye-popping brooch was also the pièce de résistance of her attire in a 1960s portrait of her and her husband in their sumptuous Palm Beach home.
One of her most prominent brooches is an exquisite silver-topped-gold and diamond bow pin dating back to 1850 and formerly owned by HRH Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent (who had received it from her mother, the Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna of Russia). The brooch is centred by an oval-shaped diamond (approximately 3.50ct) and its delicate folds are studded with smaller pear-shaped and old mine-cut sparklers weighing around 64.25ct in total. It was worn to the coronations of King George VI in 1937 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. How Wrightsman procured this jewel is unknown; but with its rich imperial history, it is undoubtedly one of the key highlights of her collection.
Also noteworthy is a 1910 Belle Époque-styled platinum corsage ornament festooned with natural saltwater pearls and over 46ct of diamonds including cushion-cut, rose-cut and pear-shaped sparklers. So coveted was this piece during the Sotheby’s auction that it sparked intense competition between seven bidders before selling for a staggering US$2,042,500 — well above its estimated price of between US$800,000 and US$1.2 million — to emerge as the top lot of the sale. The second highest sum of US$1,874,500 went to a dainty platinum brooch comprising a natural grey pearl framed by old European and mine-cut diamonds.
Other gorgeous designs include a stunning Verdura brooch dripping with round and marquise diamonds and culminating in a detachable cultured pearl, and a timelessly elegant JAR four-strand pearl bracelet fashioned in 18k gold and blackened silver with a diamond-encrusted clasp.
Emeralds and Coloured Stones
Wrightsman also had a penchant for vivid gemstones such as emeralds, sapphires, rubies and coral. One of her standout jewels is a bold and beautiful Bulgari necklace in 18k gold and adorned with five emerald beads spaced by rondelles mounted with some 11.75ct of square-cut diamonds. She was spotted in this eye-catching creation when she attended a fashion show by designers Oscar de la Renta and Carolyne Roehm on November 1, 1989 at New York City’s Plaza Hotel. Clad in a smart blue dress that accentuated the glorious green of her emeralds, she stood out from the ritzy crowd, which included cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder and model Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid.
Another striking item in her collection is a quirky Cartier brooch set in platinum and 18k gold, and crafted to resemble a turtle with a carved emerald shell. The central emerald is surrounded by glittering marquise and pear-shaped rubies, as well as almost 3ct of round diamonds. Equally lust-worthy is an intricate peacock feather brooch made of silver-topped-gold. Dating back to 1860, it is composed of a fancy-cut central sapphire framed by 15 calibré-cut emeralds and a mixture of old mine-, European- and rose-cut diamonds.
Other highlights include a pair of Cartier platinum ear clips, which is bedecked with diamonds (in various cuts such as emerald, baguette and square) assembled in chevron motifs before culminating in a vibrant emerald, as well as a showstopping rosary with 70 emerald beads and a pendant set with diamonds and five double-cabochon emeralds. The rosary was once owned by Princess Maria Anna of Bavaria, who was Queen Consort of Saxony from 1836 to 1854, and is testament to Wrightsman’s predilection for royal jewels.
Apart from emeralds, Wrightsman was partial to precious stones such as sapphires and coral. Some of her most striking pieces include a pair of JAR ear clips with diamonds and velvety sugarloaf cabochon sapphires, a turquoise bead necklace set in 18k white gold and a flamboyant Suzanne Belperron tiered necklace with dangling coral, onyx and diamonds. The latter was titled Wilting Hibiscus and comprised tiers of coral beads carved to resemble floral motifs.
While she wasn’t one to shy away from extravagant statement pieces, Wrightsman also appreciated cleaner, simpler designs set in yellow gold. These range from a Tiffany & Co. 18k openwork gold necklace with a Russian orthodox cross pendant to a Bulgari gold chain consisting of alternating open circle and coiled links. She also has a delicate Cartier necklace inspired by Islamic and Moorish architecture which is composed of gold beads, open scrollwork charms and an intricate openwork pendant.
Also notable is a 1975 Van Cleef & Arpels 14k gold mirror accompanied by a resplendent gold and diamond evening clutch. Wrightsman carried a similar gold bag when attending economist Alan Greenspan’s star-studded engagement party in 1997 and at the 1989 opening of a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition titled Canaletto, where she was the picture of effortless sophistication in a black dress and glittering gold necklace.
Wrightsman still keeps a low profile and prefers to let her contributions to the world of art speak for her. But one thing is certain: Her ascent to becoming one of New York society’s grande dames and leading art collectors is a remarkable tale. With this rich legacy, she will certainly be remembered for generations to come.
A version of this story first appeared in Adore 2016 magazine.
(Featured and main photos: Condé Nast Archive/Corbis)
Scroll down to view images from our Jayne Wrightsman-inspired jewellery photoshoot.